One of the wettest places on earth is home to centuries old bridges that are not built, but grown.
Early Morning Reverie
Azure, crimson, cobalt clouds descending in a misty embrace… Verdant greens humming the shrill constancy of the monsoon cricket. A wet, cool Cherrapunjee morning – the land of rains and living root bridges….
Hari stood peering through the whiteness at the infinite troughs and crests of the three thousand stepped trail that would lead him to the over 200 year old Umshiang double decker root bridge in Nongriat village – supposedly the only one of its kind in the world. Vast expanses of wilderness, speckled with isolated village homes, summoned this urban wanderer.
“Hey, Hari, you carry on at your pace, my wife takes a lots of pictures, we will take longer”, called out Carlos, as his wife, clicked the faraway mountains. “We will keep meeting…”
Walking down the steps, Hari marvelled at the energy of the elderly Spanish couple. Carlos had done the trek alone a decade back, and now he was back to share it with his wife. After this trip, they would travel to Tawang, a remote hilly town in Arunachal Pradesh which to most Indians was just another name in their fiercely patriotic map.
The mist cleared, butterflies flitted by in yellows, blues, greys, and mauves; large black spiders wove webs of silence; small pineapples peered through wayward jungle blooms. Hari walked alone in bliss, drawn by the gurgle of distant mountain streams.
Just when he thought this was going to be a long lonely trek, Hari turned a corner to meet three kids with their mothers -the ladies clad in traditional Khasi attire and bearing baskets upon their heads.
The youngest kid chirped: “Hello, what’s your name?”
“Mine is Hari, what’s yours?”
“Lovely name, so you go to a school?”
“No, Khasi and English”
The kids resumed their ascent while Hari headed in the opposite direction. Rosaline kept calling out “bye”, and Hari let his answers linger like a refrain to her fading echoes – all the while dwelling upon identities that spoke across borders, languages that were acquired through religious allegiances, and distances that were left uncovered within sovereign statehoods.
Further down, scribbles on a rough stone indicated the way to the right. Excitedly, Hari leapt and stumbled towards the intricately entwined rubber plant roots that stretched across the stream, forming a half formed crevice. As he emerged from the hole, and retraced his steps back to the main trail, he saw Carlos and Meg tapping their way to the bridge.
A couple of steps and he walked into a cluster of tiny wooden portico houses. In a verandah, old worn-out clothes fluttered with the joy of three little kids chasing each other amidst peels of laughter. A couple of huts away, an elderly lady sat still, staring at vacant space. Hari wondered what was she looking at, the past, the future …or was it a continuum.
After toiling through seemingly never-ending steps and some slippery rocks, Hari was greeted with the appearance of two precariously hanging bridges. They were made of rusty iron cables – repaired and supported with bamboo, with some parts held together with steel wires. Hari spotted a solitary, self-absorbed young lady balance her way up the bridge. And more reposing butterflies that burst and quivered when touched gently by the rays of the sun….
Suddenly, there emerged a large green field with two goal posts, looking incongruous amidst the wild and rocky terrain. A lanky youth strode across it, slowly and inevitably disappearing into nothingness….Again endless exhausting steps, with the lonely taps of the sole walking stick…and then, out of a hidden craggy bush, stood up a shaggy man with a sickle in his hand and a grinning “hello” on his lips.
Wet Lazy Afternoons
Finally he reached the root bridge that had grown from the roots of the Ficus elastic tree. This tree produces a series of secondary roots and can be made to perch over huge boulders along the riverbanks, or even straddle a river. In order to make a rubber tree’s roots grow in the right direction, the Khasi tribe of Meghalaya use betel nut trunks, sliced down the middle and hollowed out, to create root-guidance systems. The thin, tender roots of the rubber tree are prevented from fanning out by the betel nut trunks. Forced to grow straight out, they take root in the soil upon reaching the other side of the river.
Exhausted, Hari sat by the cool stream that ran below the double decker bridge. Little children played in the water and swung on the hanging roots. Carlos and Meg pottered around and chatted with the kids. The languid peace of being one with nature washed over Hari, as he started his journey back home.
On his way back, the craggy bush sickle man would again pop up to say bye, the deserted goal posts in the green would still be standing still by themselves, the kids in the verandah would cast a careless glance from their afternoon siesta, and the old lady would still be gazing into vacant space from the steps of her verandah.
Life in this quiet stretch of nature would carry on the same way. Hari would go back to the resort, and exchange drinks and stories with Carlos. But as night would descend, the tales of all those who walked and slept and lived along the centuries old bridge would remain unsaid and unknown.
The bridges and its people would wait for another lone trekker to walk by and catch a momentary glimpse of their butterfly dreams.
The path to the Double Decker Root Bridge is 3 kilometres long, has around 3,500 stairs, and descends 2,400 feet. You need to be reasonably fit to complete this approximately 5 hour trek.
The trek starts at Tyrna village, around 30 minutes past Cherrapunji in Meghalaya. It can be comfortably done as part of a day trip from Shillong. – Tyrna is a 2 to 3 hour drive from Shillong, and an early start should get you back in Tyrna by 5 pm. Alternatively, you can stay overnight and explore the untouched Cherrapunji villages, watch the dramatic low clouds, drive down the rolling hills, and view all the neighbouring falls.
Avoid the trek during monsoons. Travel light, with a walking stick for support. Avoid sitting down before you complete the downhill trek. Sitting in the middle would make you feel more tired. Carry drinking water. It is possible to go swimming in the natural pools at the Double Decker Bridge, so bring appropriate swimwear if you are interested (changing rooms are available).